Over a 30 year career, Joel Ferrell has gone from journeyman actor and dancer to one of the driving creative forces at the Dallas Theater Center
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Applause Editor
Joel Ferrell is the first one to admit that he “[doesn’t] do well in giant windowless buildings,” so when Kevin Moriarty tapped him to join the Dallas Theater Center staff as an “associate artist” —basically the No. 2 on the artistic side of the venerated troupe, tasked with directing about a third of the shows there and helping to produce others — he might have balked. Ferrell, like a lot of theaterfolk, has a gypsy’s nature: He likes to move around, trying new things, exploring different theaters and companies and stages. It’s how he’s made his living for 30 years.
But the call from Moriarty came with more than the promise of a steady paycheck and a corporate title. It came with the opportunity to help reinvent how theater could be done. And though he would surely dispute it, almost as much as Moriarty, Ferrell has been instrumental in testing the limits of the Wyly Theatre and bringing the DTC to national prominence.
Ferrell could fairly be called the hardest working man at the DTC, if not in all North Texas theater.
“I don’t know about that — Kevin works much harder,” he says demurely.
But look at the facts: This past season alone, Ferrell produced the acclaimed sell-out comedy Arsenic and Old Lace at the Kalita, and directed the DTC’s best shows back-to-back: The Horton Foote comedy Dividing the Estate, immediately followed by his staggeringly complex and affecting revision of the musical Cabaret, which he also choreographed. He’s also the man responsible for conceiving (and directing and choreographing most productions) of DTC’s holiday staple A Christmas Carol, a task he returns to this winter in addition to helming the regional premiere of God of Carnage.
In some ways, this is a cakewalk compared to the pace Ferrell maintained in his five seasons with Fort Worth’s Casa Manana, where he directed and/or choreographed more than three dozen musicals. It was great experience, Ferrell concedes, but not a fulfilling one.
“I was always a square peg in a round hole there,” he says. “What we did was in essence summer stock, with me playing producer, directing the designers, deciding whether to rent costumes. I was fighting to make Casa an arts organization that did art from the ground up. After years of poking my finger in that bear I gave up. It was invaluable and energizing and I wouldn’t trade it at all, but I’m so glad I’m not doing it now.”
What he wanted was what all artists crave: Freedom to experiment with the limits of their imagination, and “this place has done that for me, with me, to me … in spades,” he says.
By “this place,” Ferrell is referring both to the Theater Center itself and its new home in the Wyly Theatre. The building has not been without its critics: An overly steep entrance, uncomfortable chairs (recently, and expensively, updated last year), confusing and crowded accessways … and that’s just from the audience’s perspective.
“There’s no typical backstage where a director can stand and pace when you’re watching the opening of your new show,” Ferrell notes about the configuration. But he’s adjusting.
“It took significant getting used to because it is unlike any theater building I have been in,” he says. “There have been hiccups, but I have to say — having bopped around the country working at a number of theaters — lot of things are fantastic. But probably the luckiest thing is that Kevin Moriarty was the first artistic director to move into the building.”
Ferrell credits Moriarty with encouraging his creative team to make inventive use of the stage. “This is not a place for directors who want a proscenium,” Ferrell cautions. “I really like working in the theater that is so flexible and with very few limitations about how you can create your space.”
For his part, the depth of that creativity came with Ferrell’s radical staging of Cabaret earlier this spring: Working with his set designer, he turned part of the Wyly stage into the floor of the Kit Kat Klub in the 1930s, complete with café tables, tea lights and beverage service. It was a far more complicated undertaking than merely coming up with an idea.
“You had to be aware of where it would be coherent to have tables, what the number of seats to be sold could be, the safety, ADA compliance. The decision just where to put the service tables for the waiters was a big one. I worked a supper club theater in New York years ago and it was a lot of work. Very quickly it became understood it took a lot of departments working together to make it work. It is a great collaborative process here working with an evolving building.”
Ferrell is quick to share the credit with all the people who help make a show come together.
“I have been lucky to have such astonishing designers working with me — there’s no need for me to lead them by the nose. During tech week on Dividing the Estate someone told me she was in awe of the process, mesmerized by the speed at which the [artists] work. Someone said to me, ‘I don’t know when you sleep!’ During tech week, I don’t sleep.”
His generosity of spirit probably comes from starting out as an actor (he became a member of Actors Equity 30 years ago, he crows) before moving into choreography and eventually directing. He first worked at the DTC when Richard Hamburger, the former artistic director, hired him for a new production of A Christmas Carol in 1991.
“Then about eight years ago, Hamburger hired me to choreograph My Fair Lady — the last show performed at the old Arts District Theater. That was the most collaborative I have even been with Richard,” he says.
Ferrell decided to take a breather when in 2008 he received a call from Moriarty, who had only recently been appointed the new A.D.
“He asked, would I choreograph The Who’s Tommy. It became very apparent he was testing the waters with me, to see if it made sense for me to be connected with the Theater Center. Even still, coming on staff? I did not see that coming.”
Ferrell thinks Moriarty has been instrumental in “making the Theater Center more relevant to Dallas than it had been in a long time, arguing that it should be doing innovate stuff and regain a national footprint. It feels like we’ve made some great progress in that way,” he says.
As for Ferrell himself, he’s still excited about his new role in shaping the North Texas theater scene, and has found a sense of serenity.
“There was a time when I thought the amount of shows I did was the barometer of my success,” Ferrell admits.
Not so much anymore. He’ll take quality over quantity any day. If only he could just slow down.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 26, 2011.