Adrian Hall, a force at Dallas Theater Center in the 1980s, dies at 95, leaving a legacy


Way back in 1927, the same year that New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth broke the single-season home-run record with 60, and Al Jolson dazzled American moviegoers in the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, a boy was born in the Piney Woods of Van, in East Texas.

His name was Adrian Hall, and he would go on to become a rare thing for a boy from Van — one of America’s foremost directors of theater. Hall died Feb. 4 at age 95 at his home in Van Zandt County, after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, the same affliction that killed his mother.

Kevin Moriarty, executive director of Dallas Theater Center, where Hall served as artistic director from 1983 to 1989, said the Tony Award-winning director “forever transformed our community through his groundbreaking productions, his bold use of theatrical space and the incredibly talented collaborators with whom he worked, including the inimitable designer, Eugene Lee. During Adrian’s tenure in Dallas, the theater built the flexible Arts District Theater, the precursor and inspiration for the Wyly Theatre, which replaced it in 2009.”

Adrian Hall meets with actors during a rehearsal in 1983.(ED HILLE – staff photographer)

Lee, a three-time Tony Award winner who was Hall’s frequent collaborator and friend, earned a lofty reputation as a set designer who worked in film, theater and television. He served as production designer on Saturday Night Live for 48 years, from the show’s premiere in 1975 until his death on Monday. Lee was 83. He and Hall worked together in Dallas and at the Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island.

There was a reason that Hall left the Dallas Theater Center. He was fired, underscoring a defining element in his long and storied career — as brilliant as he was artistically, he was often a fiscal challenge for those who signed his paycheck, no matter how deeply they admired him.

Soon after his departure from Dallas, he took refuge in San Diego’s esteemed Old Globe Theatre, where the Tony Award-winning artistic director, Jack O’Brien, hired him as fast as he could to direct Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Adrian Hall watches a rehearsal for "The Tempest" in 1987.
Adrian Hall watches a rehearsal for “The Tempest” in 1987. (NURI VALLBONA – staff photographer / 21458)

In its story about Hall’s re-emergence in sunny San Diego, the Los Angeles Times noted: “For years, Adrian Hall could be counted on to deliver the unexpected. His actors might spray the patrons with water, might fire off cannons, might smack a bloody side of meat in a play about the Manson murders, might perform The Visit in an old railroad depot. But these days, it is Hall on whom the surprises are being sprung.”

When push came to shove in Dallas, the board of trustees at the theater center declared that it had seen enough of Hall’s freewheeling style and asked him to resign. He refused and was fired.

As William Custard, then the chairman of the theater center’s board of trustees, told the Times: “Adrian Hall is one of the most talented, vibrant directors in the United States. If not the world. We at the Dallas Theater Center needed someone to come in and shake not only the theater, but the community — and shake it vibrantly. And there is no one who could have done that more successfully than Adrian did. We are very grateful.”

But … and there was always a “but” with Hall.

“No season was planned. We don’t want anyone to feel hamstrung, but you do have to have marketing to support that kind of artistic effort. To leave a season open-ended is fighting a war without ammunition. That’s the real world.”

Dallas native Peter MacNicol, whose acting credits include the movie, "Sophie's Choice," for...
Dallas native Peter MacNicol, whose acting credits include the movie, “Sophie’s Choice,” for which Meryl Streep won on Academy Award, takes direction from Adrian Hall, during Hall’s tenure at the Dallas Theater Center. (Dallas Theater Center / HANDOUT)

And yet, Hall remained defiant: “Every once in a while, an Adrian Hall will meet an unmovable object such as the Dallas Theater Center board.” He refused to see the theater as a business. “On the day when anybody in a three-piece suit can say, ‘They are fiscally responsible, the theater is a business like anything else,’ then we are really in trouble.”

This past week, Moriarty called Hall “one of the most significant visionaries of the American regional theater movement.”

As an artist displaying his talent for a city to see, and in Hall’s case to marvel at, he had a style, and he was resolute in maintaining a style, however provocative it happened to be.

“Adrian loved to shock an audience,” Moriarty said. “He was determined to keep the audience awake and on alert throughout his productions. He loved the relationship between actors and the audience, often blurring the line between the two.”

As Hall said in a 1983 High Profile in The Dallas Morning News: “I am not interested in those who feel Dallas is great only because of the Dallas Cowboys. Apathy is the greatest enemy of all people in the arts. Dallas theater has somehow managed to survive, but it has failed to capture the imagination of the city.”

Adrian Hall in 197 at his home office in Dallas.
Adrian Hall in 197 at his home office in Dallas. (JOHN F. RHODES – staff photographer / 22014)

As Moriarty said, “I cannot imagine my artistic life without the overwhelming influence of Adrian Hall looming over me. The two theaters that Adrian led, Trinity Rep Company in Providence and Dallas Theater Center, have been my artistic homes for the majority of my career. Though he was no longer artistic director at either theater when I arrived, his influence loomed large at both, impacting the style of acting in the community, the architecture of the theater buildings, and inspiring a rough directorial aesthetic filled with risk.

“When I confront a script on the page, assault a theatrical space, or empower an actor and audience member to be fully present with each other in the moment, I am still, all these years later, in a dialogue with, and inspired by, Adrian Hall. We will not see the like of him again.”