In Dallas, underground theater breaks surface

In the basement of a former Bekins storage building near downtown Dallas, a small cluster of actors and actresses apply makeup with the assistance of large, oddly shaped mirror fragments edged for safety with electrician's tape. Someone requests a little quiet, since the ``house,'' only a wall away, is about to open. But one actress cannot stifle herself as she fashions a room deodorizer out of napkins and honeysuckle perfume. ``The lobby smells like Clorox!'' she wails, squeezing past several bodies in the direction of the offending aroma.

``Welcome to the high-tech backstage of the Undermain Theatre,'' says theater co-founder Katherine Owens.

There is in fact nothing high-tech about the Undermain Theatre, a small operation in a fledgling arts and nightclub district of Dallas. But what the diminutive theater lacks in state-of-the-art equipment - its 84 seats are hand-me-downs from a remodeling job at a wealthier theater in town - it makes up for in enthusiasm for avant-garde theater.

That a theater like the Undermain, whose productions stress insight into the human spirit over story line, can even exist in a conservative city like Dallas is a testament to the determination of its two young founders. Still very much a button-down business town, where shopping is considered by many the No. 1 cultural activity, Dallas has seen several prominent theaters close in recent years.

But at the same time, small companies like the Undermain have sprouted stubbornly, and the basement theater's mounting good press and growing recognition in the city's more conventional arts circles suggest that Dallas is slowly broadening its artistic horizons.

``There wasn't much of a ready-made audience for us here,'' says Ms. Owens, seated with Undermain co-founder Raphael (Randy) Parry in the windowless but homey theater lobby. After four years and 17 productions, the Undermain still faces nights with a dozen patrons. ``In Dallas, if they go for anything,'' Owens says, ``it's the fancy fancy stuff.''

Mr. Parry says conventional theater viewed from comfortable seats is what sells best, ``but we want to spark something in the mind.''

Not everyone appreciates such purely cerebral intentions, however: The Undermain's unorthodox setting has ``sparked'' some disapproving interest from the city's fire and building departments that resulted in several performances being canceled this month while plans for a fire-safe second exit were drawn up.

Owens and Parry, both Texans, met in Dallas in 1982 while building the stage electric chair for a one-act monologue by a man about to be executed. Both were doing whatever they could to stay active in Dallas theater, but both had their sights set on starting a small company where they could act and direct the kind of theater they felt mattered.

Their mutual drive led them to a brick warehouse in a part of town called Deep Ellum, so named by black jazz musicians who in the '30s played clubs along the neighborhood's Elm Street. Building owner Jim Herling, whose Parisian wife, Michele, has a gallery of primitive art on the second floor, says the thought of something like a Left Bank playhouse in the building intrigued him and his wife.

At first Mr. Herling suggested the building's first floor, but when Owens said all they needed was ``a little rathole,'' the owner knew his basement was the answer.

The actors' original intention was simply to clear a small space for rehearsals - something like an artist's studio. But soon visitors to Deep Ellum were wandering in for a look, and before long the Undermain (the building fronts on Main Street) was born.

This year the Undermain will mount four productions on a $40,000 budget. About half of that will come from ticket sales, with funding from the City of Dallas, a few local arts boosters - and parents - helping out.

The Undermain's repertoire has emphasized surrealist works, including a sellout production this year of John O'Keefe's ``Ghosts.'' An earlier production of Mr. O'Keefe's ``All Night Long'' prompted the San Francisco playwright to visit the Undermain and judge it one of the more exciting companies in current theater.

This month the Undermain is presenting ``Bloody Poetry,'' a witty but despairing look at passion without love's commitments through the lives of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although it has a linear plot line unlike most Undermain productions, it exhibits the same interest in exploring the human condition.

``The plays they do deal with the real world,'' says Dallas arts patron Bonnie Leslie. Lamenting a tendency in theater in Dallas and elsewhere to mount ``so many variations of `Annie,''' Ms. Leslie adds that the Undermain's determination to focus on ``real emotions'' makes the theater ``something quite special.''

Leslie says the Undermain has survived because ``Randy and Katherine have remained true to their principles. No matter what the economy or the arts scene, those qualities are likely to succeed.''

Parry says he believes an influx of newcomers to Dallas in this decade has brought in new tastes and broadened support for the arts. According to Owens, the city's recent growth in small theater companies is a natural outcome of larger changes taking place in Dallas. The traditional white conservative power structure is giving way to a broader base of minority and economic interests, and it's only natural, she says, that this diffusion be reflected in the arts.

Not everyone acquainted with the Dallas arts scene concurs with that assessment, however.

Jack Clay, a 20-year veteran of Dallas theater who two years ago moved to Seattle, says he believes the city's economic troubles have ``destroyed much of the ferment'' he saw breeding new theater in the 1970s. Now a drama professor at the University of Washington, Mr. Clay says it was ``painful'' to work in Dallas, a city he describes as ``very business oriented, and so materialistic.''

``You could open a show there to absolutely terrific reviews, and find yourself that evening with five or six in the audience,'' says Clay, who introduced Dallas to such playwrights as Sam Shephard and David Mamet.

Clay says Dallas is an ``intensification of a general American problem'' that will be solved only by educating audiences and arts supporters. ``In the long run,'' he says, ``it's a question of dogged education of the people of Dallas, and bringing them to regard the things of the spirit as ultimately more important than the things of the purse.''

Owens and Parry say they have known the thrill of developing a quality company on a hand-to-mouth budget, and are ready to graduate from what they call ``starving-artist status.'' But, fortunately for Dallas, they are not giving up on the city.

``I could never say Dallas turned its back on us,'' says Owens. ``It's taking longer than we would have liked, but we haven't sold out.''

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