After 15 years, Theatre Arlington’s gay artistic director moves on. But don’t think you’ll be seeing less of him — you’ll be seeing more
In 2006, B.J. Cleveland expressed surprise that he — one of North Texas’ most outrageous theater personalities, known for drag performances and comic antics (such as accepting an award he lost on behalf of the rightful winner) — had turned into "the old man of Theatre Arlington."
But after 27 seasons associated with the suburban community theater, the last 15 as its artistic director, Cleveland is stepping down.
Only kinda not.
"I shut my office door on Aug. 30, but I’m back the next night for rehearsals for ‘Big River,’" which he is directing. Hardly circumstances conducive to separation anxiety.
If Cleveland is maudlin about ceasing his role there, he doesn’t show it. Or maybe he’s been so busy, it hasn’t had time to register.
"I am calm. I have a show ["Harvey"] opening this week, but other than that… yeah," he says.
When Cleveland announced his upcoming departure earlier this summer, which he did by way of a Facebook posting, scores of colleagues and friends weighed in. Shouts of "say it ain’t so!" and "their loss" reflected the almost seismic change (he’s one of the longest-tenured artistic directors at any local theater company) his departure indicated. Cleveland was gratified by the reaction, but not nearly as upset as his friends.
"It’s not a ‘what’s gone wrong’ situation," he says. "People can point figures to the bad economy, but [the theater's board] actually took my suggestion to scale down." Months before the decision to dismantle the artistic director position (Cleveland will not be replaced directly), he began looking for ways to segue into the next phase of his career.
"You direct ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ enough times and it’s not a wonderful life anymore," he quips. "When you start to do revivals of your own shows you realize it’s time to move on."
He first realized he wanted to scratch that itch around 2002, when Uptown Players tapped him to star in their inaugural production, "When Pigs Fly."
"I had no business doing IT because I didn’t have the time," he says. "But it broke the monotony of what I had been doing at Theatre Arlington and reintroduced me to Dallas audiences. Plus I was proud of their messages and their shows. It gave me a home away from home in Dallas."
Cleveland is nearly fully booked for the next 12 months. As soon as he closes "Harvey," he’ll begin directing "Big River" and take a part in Theatre Three’s regional debut of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." That’s in addition to being at adjunct professor at UT Arlington, KD Studios and other schools, appearing in Uptown’s "Broadway Our Way" fundraiser and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" next winter and directing their summer musical and working with an improv troupe. For someone about to be unemployed, he’s breathlessly busy.
But there’s still his current production to worry about: "Harvey," in which he stars as the dreamy Elwood P. Dowd.
"I’ve not done the show before. Even though it’s a classic, it’s nice to do because Elwood’s philosophy of life is very much what I’m going through right now. It’s a fresh burst of optimism, a special role at a special time in my life because I can’t be anything but optimistic. He has a line, ‘I wrestled with reality for 40 years and finally won over it.’ I have been stuck in this rut and now ready to leave this reality and search for something else."
Certainly he is not shy to discuss his artistic frustrations.
"We’re all in the shadow of that monolithic stadium!" he says of the Arlington theater scene. "Am I sad leaving the arts in Arlington? No. The people, yes. But [the city leaders] need to get their priorities straight. Attention must be paid."
That last line also ends "Death of a Salesman," and is spoken by the protagonist’s wife Linda. Even when he’s serious, leave it to Cleveland to work drag in the conversation.
"Harvey" at Theatre Arlington, 305 W. Main St., Arlington. Through Aug. 30. Theatrearlington.org.
For the first half-hour of "The Royal Family" at Theatre Three, director Jac Alder has set most of the cast about a half-step too slow. This George S. Kaufman play from the 1920s — a thinly-veiled riff on the infamous Barrymore acting clan — was almost a dry-run for his later "You Can’t Take It With You," an it needs a frantic energy: Madcap but precise.
But then two things happen: First, Carolyn Wickwire (pictured center), playing the family matriarch, steps onstage, delivering these 80-year-old one-liners with a droll, completely modern style that makes them sound fresh. Then Jack Foltyn, playing the zany prodigal son, bursts in, jolting the play with an excitement that sustains it almost to the end.
Foltyn is that rarest of acting gifts: The swashbuckling comedian. Shirtless, he’s as matinee-idol dreamy as Hugh Jackman, but in every moment he’s comic dynamite, as if Robin Williams were channeling Snagglepuss. He and Wickwire elevate this charming chestnut to quasi-classic status.
Runs through Aug. 30. Theatre3Dallas.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 7, 2009.