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Former Dallas Theater Center artistic director Adrian Hall has died

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Dane Walters
Adrian Hall in 2016 at his home in Van, Texas.

A stage director who could be exhilarating and exasperating, Hall ran two major theater companies at once and influenced actors such as Viola Davis. But after a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, he retired to his family home in Texas. Hall was 95.

Adrian Hall led the Dallas Theater Center for six tumultous years from 1983 to 1989. He died Saturday at his home in Van, Texas — as was reported on social media by his longtime friend Dan Butler.

During his time at the helm in Dallas, Hall had the Kalita Humphreys Theater re-configured, established a professional acting company with 15 artists, pulled the DTC out of its commercial touring series at the Majestic Theater and built the DTC's Arts District Theater designed by "Saturday Night Live" scenic artist Eugene Lee. Standing where the Winspear Opera House now is, the metal warehouse (the 'tin shed') planted the Theater Center in the then-still-unformed, downtown Arts District. It was Hall's aim for the future.

"Where the people are," Hall said, "that's where the theater's got to be."

Some of the nationally-known actors he inspired over the years include Viola Davis — who Sunday won a Grammy, making her an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony Award winner). During high school and college, Davis lived in Rhode Island and experienced Hall's work. Other actors include Katherine Helmond ("Soap," "Brazil"), Tim Daly ("Basic") and Peter Gerety ("The Wire").

He also created some of the DTC's boldest, most striking productions.

These included a sweeping adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel "All the King's Men" and a staging of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," in which the entire wooden stage could rock like a ship in a storm.

And for three of those six years in the '80s, Hall simultaneously led the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. which he helped establish in 1961.

KERA News profiled Hall in 2016 from his home — when it first became public that he had Alzheimer's. Hall said the same disease had killed his mother at 92.

Art&Seek's 2016 profile of Adrian Hall from him home

Hall was one of the last of the early generation of resident theater founders, who helped bring professional stage art to cities across America in the '50s and '60s — as an antidote to what they saw as the brassy and commonplace limitations of Broadway.

Hall had been exposed to the hurly-burly of theater in the United States Army, where he worked in a touring company entertaining troops in Germany. He moved to New York in 1955 and joined the off-Broadway movement of the '50s, starting as a janitor at the pioneering Greenwich Mews company but ultimately leading it. He came to know major theater artists from the era, including Tennessee Williams. He directed a re-written version of Williams' "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" in 1963.

But Hall was unable to crack into Broadway's inner circle of directors. Disenchanted with the commercial stage and unable to make a consistent living, he was seeking another way to pursue theater. Ironically, it was precisely his professional New York experience and connections that led a small group of Rhode Island citizens to approach him. They were eager to start a resident stage company.

Hall became the founding artistic director of Trinity Repertory in 1964 and would remain its head until 1986. He accepted the regional Tony Award for Trinity Rep in 1981 and brought two of his stage productions to PBS' "Great Performances," including "Feasting with Panthers," his 1971 drama about Oscar Wilde's five years in prison. The success of Trinity Rep helped start the revitalization of downtown Providence.

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Jerome Weeks
Trading memories: Adrian Hall and Nance Williamson, one of the members of his Dallas Theater Center acting company, in 2018.

During Hall's last three years at Trinity, he was also artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center. Hall is the only person to run two major regional theater companies at the same time — clear across the country.

Hall brought an evangelical fervor to the stage that, at his best, made his shows an unvarnished confrontation between actors and audience. The theater had seemingly given life to this small-town, farm-grown Texan and he wanted to spread that spark: "The theater is thousands of years old," he said, "and it has always been man's attempt to tell the stories to the people who are there and most of all, it's alive."

As part of that deep belief in the power of theater, Hall brought Project Discovery to the DTC in 1987, which he started (it still continues) at Trinity Rep. Instead of the typical educational program, where a couple of actors go out to talk in school classrooms, Hall felt it important that young people experience all of theater: the visit to a special space, a space designed for a particular, shared experience and then to interact with the performers while they're still in costume and make-up, to ask questions of the director or designers.

In 2013, Project Discovery was one of 13 programs across the nation to be honored with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

Inevitably perhaps, a 1983 study of Hall's life and career by Jeannie Marlin Woods was called "Theatre to Change Men's Souls."

But that same fervor could make Hall hard to work with on practical matters. In that 2016 interview, he conceded he was impatient when he came to Dallas because he was already 55 — and he was expected to re-create the kind of magic he'd done in Providence.

In fact, in 1976, Hall gained fame among envious theater directors when the Trinity Rep board fired him. Instead of leaving, Hall sought out supporters to establish an entirely new board — and continued to lead the company. He became known as "the director who'd fired his board."

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Jerome Weeks
Adrian Hall at his home in Van, Texas in October 2022.

But in Dallas, it didn't work that way. The Theater Center board had asked him to resign in 1988, and he'd refused. Hall had sold his Rhode Island home and was still in the process of moving to Dallas in 1989 when the board notified him he had proved too difficult. He was out. And for all his efforts, he hadn't produced the kind of national attention he had at Trinity.

Subsequently, Hall established himself as a freelance director, working off-Broadway, in San Diego and Seattle. He was working so regularly, Hall leased an apartment in New York.

But when a doctor told him in 2014 that the mental and physical troubles he'd been having since 2012 were caused by Alzheimer's, Hall retreated to his home in Van, Texas, 80 miles east of Dallas. Having cared for his mother during her decline from the disease, he knew what to expect. Partly as a way to combat his fading memory, Hall turned his home into a historic archive of his work, surrounding himself with photos, programs and other memorabilia.

In 2016, he said, "So that's what I have been doing. I live in a world where I am constantly with my past."

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.