“The Texas Tornado,” Margo Jones left regional theaters in her wake
Sweet Tornado sounds like something you could order at Earl Abel’s (“Another slice of Sweet Tornado Pie, ma’am?) but it’s actually the awkward title of a new PBS documentary about another Texas institution: Margo Jones, a.k.a. “The Texas Tornado,” the life force behind the founding of America’s web of regional theaters. Before the Steppenwolf and the Goodman and American Conservatory Theater there was, well, pretty much nothing: Cities depended on touring New York City productions for their fill of professional, socially aware theater. Margo Jones changed all that.
|Margo Jones was a performance-art revolutionary who launched the regional-theater movement from Dallas before her untimely death in 1955. Richard|
The conceit of Sweet Tornado is that the life of Jones, consummate woman of the theater, can only be told through theater itself. So: Judith Ivey portrays Jones in a theater-in-the-round while Richard Thomas (yes, The Waltons’ John-Boy) occasionally interrupts as Tennessee Williams, one of Jones’s first theatrical discoveries. The result is more than a little weird — meta-theater probably looked more attractive as an idea than in the execution — and the staginess of the documentary smacks of those old Masterpiece Theater adaptations of Charles Dickens. Still, Ivey gives it her all and there’s a lot of interest to be had in the final moments of the program, when Ivey re-enacts Jones’s last drunken evening and bizarre death by environmental poisoning.
In between, we learn of Jones’s talents as a producer, director, and provocateur, including her New York successes and scandals. More importantly, we learn about her pitch to Dallas patrons in 1947: With sufficient money, time, and talent, she could match the caliber of theater in New York and actually send productions to the Big Apple and not the other way around. Amazingly, Dallas audiences rose to the challenge, even embracing the premiere of the pro-Darwin Inherit the Wind, a risky proposition in the South. After her untimely death in 1955, young and hungry directors and producers looked to Jones’s manifesto, Theatre-in-the-Round, as a blueprint for founding their own professional, resident theaters. And the rest, as they say, is history.
|Thomas and Judith Ivey re-enact scenes from the lives of Tennessee Williams, whom Jones promoted, and Jones in the PBS documentary Sweet Tornado.|
There’s a special poignancy for the documentary’s San Antonio audience, however. The sad truth is that theater in San Antonio looks much the same after Margo Jones as it did before Margo Jones, if not before Hoover. Theater here still largely revolves around community productions of safe, standard fare, with very little emphasis on proper marketing and few aspirations for evolving into a regional theater. These local venues look very little like the professional regional theaters that have sprouted in Cleveland, St. Louis, Atlanta, even Roanoke — and the list goes on. The Alley Theater in Houston, winner of a recent Tony for best regional theater, exemplifies all that can be right about Texas theater, with professional, Actors Equity casts, a strong subscriber base, and the guts to program tough, provocative dramas such as Martin McDonough’s The Pillowman. The Alley started small — hence the name — but through a proper blend of stewardship and savvy, has flourished as a source of local and even national pride.
Attempts to found a similar theater in San Antonio have, alas, foundered on the shoals of financial peril, artistic turnover, and (one fears) audience apathy. Still, all is not lost: Roberto Prestigiacomo and Kristin Crouch, assistant professors of drama at Trinity University, have co-founded this spring the Attic Repertory theater, with an initial run in May of Harold Pinter’s One for the Road, a searching examination of the horrors of state-sanctioned torture. This is hardly the toe-tapping stuff that floats through the Majestic Theater (I can just see it: Anguish! The Musical), and it shouldn’t be: A regional theater starts with the premise that art entertains and challenges.
In the most depressing segment of Sweet Tornado, a CGI map of the United States lights up with a constellation of regional theaters, a tribute to Jones’s remarkable national legacy.
Over San Antonio, though, just a hole where a tornado has yet to touch down. •
Sweet Tornado premieres on KLRN at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 30. Check local listings at klrn.org.