Adrian Hall, Who Invigorated Regional Theater, Dies at 95

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Neil Genzlinger

As founding artistic director, he made Trinity Rep in Rhode Island a leader in theatrical innovation. He then made his mark in Dallas as well.

Adrian Hall, who as founding artistic director built Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., into one of the premier regional theaters in the country, and who did similarly important work in Dallas and elsewhere, died on Feb. 4 in Tyler, Texas. He was 95.

Trinity announced his death in a statement. A neighbor, Ruth Barrett, said Mr. Hall, who lived in his native city, Van, Texas, east of Dallas, died in a hospital.

Curt Columbus, Trinity’s current artistic director, called Mr. Hall “a visionary artist, not only in the way he challenged the aesthetic limits of the stage, but also in the challenging subject matter he produced.”

Mr. Hall led Trinity from its founding in 1964 until 1989, presenting one inventive production after another. For the last six years of that tenure, he was also artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, another important regional house.

In the 1960s and ’70s, with the establishment not only of Trinity but also of houses like American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts, the Guthrie in Minneapolis and Steppenwolf in Chicago, the regional theater movement that had begun a generation earlier under Margo Jones in Dallas and others solidified. Mr. Hall and his counterparts championed bold works innovatively staged.

“His work was rooted in the work of the founders of the movement who came before him, especially Margo Jones, but then burst it wide open,” Kevin Moriarty, executive director of the Dallas Theater Center, said by email. “Like them, Adrian was deeply committed to creating a body of work with a company of actors who were resident in a community, rather than pick up actors for hire.

“But,” he continued, “his unique approach to theatrical narrative and design was a significant aesthetic departure. Fusing the European influences of Brecht and Grotowski with a deep American sensibility (even more specifically, that of a gay Texan maverick), Adrian created theater in which actors confronted the audience directly.”

In the early days of Trinity, that audience often consisted of high school students. In 1966, Mr. Hall received federal funding for a three-year program he called Project Discovery, which bused students from throughout Rhode Island to Providence to experience theater. In the first season, he mounted shows like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” thinking that the students would be interested in seeing plays they might be reading in class.

They weren’t. They slashed seats, vandalized the bathrooms, threw things at the actors.

“It was my moment of truth,” Mr. Hall told The Los Angeles Times in 1989. “Even though I was frightened of them, I knew it was a battle unto the death with me. I had to make them listen.”

“That,” he added, “is when I fired the cannons and sprayed them with water.”

The reference was to the company’s adaptation of “Billy Budd,” the Herman Melville novella. Mr. Hall staged it in 1969, with the theater transformed into the H.M.S. Indomitable. The set was the work of Mr. Hall’s longtime collaborator Eugene Lee, who died on Feb. 6. (“Lee’s Indomitable is a masterpiece of stagecraft,” Kevin Kelly wrote in a review in The Boston Globe, “and it wouldn’t surprise me if she sailed.”)

For that and other productions, Mr. Hall altered the theater seating in ways that made the students feel part of the action, an effort to shake them out of their indifference.

“It seemed to me I had worked all my life to make theater possible, and the audience was saying, ‘We don’t want no part of it,’” he told The New York Times in 1975. “And so I began right then to move outside of the proscenium and to surprise those little devils, to throw things at them, to challenge them, to intimidate them.”

That approach became a signature of Mr. Hall’s work. By 1972 The Times was calling him “probably the most interesting director now working in the American regional theater.” Fifteen years later, the newspaper described the Texas-born Mr. Hall as “regional theater’s most charismatic evangelist, preaching the gospel of the nonprofit theater and warning against that devil, Broadway, with a driven fervor that is as Southern as tent meetings and as brashly Texan as a fur coat at the Cotton Bowl.”

For some directors, the text of a play guides the presentation. But for Mr. Hall, and others in the regional theaters of the day, the director’s vision was paramount.

“He brought his own unique aesthetic to a play,” Mr. Moriarty said, “focusing on the violence of a visceral experience in a shared, rough space, rather than creating illustrations that attempted to represent reality.”

In 1981 Trinity won the Tony Award for regional theaters.

Mr. Hall on the set of “The Tempest” at the Dallas Theater Center in 1987. For the last six years of his tenure at Trinity, he was also artistic director there.Mark Perlstein for The New York Times

Mr. Hall was born in Van on Dec. 3, 1927, to Lennie and Mattie Hall. His father thought he should follow in his footsteps and become a rancher; his mother envisioned him as a preacher. Instead he read a lot, acted in school plays and, after graduating from high school at 16, enrolled at East State Texas Teachers College in Commerce.

In 1947, he took a fateful trip to Dallas, where he met Ms. Jones, who was attracting attention with the repertory theater she had started there.

She suggested that he apply to the Pasadena Playhouse’s theater arts school in California. He was accepted, and studied for six months there before returning to the teachers college. He graduated in 1949 and, from 1951 to 1953, served in the Army, where he started the Seventh Army Repertory Company, “doing grim little plays like ‘Darkness at Noon’” all over Europe, he told The Boston Globe in 1986.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, Mr. Hall directed in New York City, the Catskills and elsewhere before getting the call from a group of Providence business people who were trying to turn an amateur theatrical group, Trinity Square, into a professional one.

He leaves no immediate survivors.

Mr. Hall had a big personality and sometimes clashed with theater boards; his reluctance to set his full season in advance was one source of friction, since that made it hard to market subscriptions. A split with the Trinity board led him to leave Providence in 1989 and devote his full attention to the Dallas job, only to have that end when he clashed with the board there the same year, after which he became a freelance director.

“Every once in a while,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1989, “an Adrian Hall will meet an unmovable object such as the Dallas Theater Center board.”

If his personality set him apart, so, to some, did being openly gay. It also influenced his work.

“Being gay, well, it’s an outsider status, no matter what anyone else says, and part of me really likes that,” he told The Globe in 1986. “It keeps me on edge, keeps me aware of what it’s like not being fully accepted, what it’s like being scorned and thought less of because you’re different.

“I identify with society’s rejects. Always have. That’s what my work’s about.”

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