From the archives: Fort Worth’s Stage West moves confidently toward the millennium

Posted Friday, Sep. 06, 2013  Print Reprints

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

Editor’s note: This report was originally published in the Star-Telegram on May 9, 1998.

Talk to anyone connected with Stage West about this Fort Worth theater’s present and its future, and metaphors about newness tumble over each other.

The 19-year-old troupe’s newest and perhaps most-ambitious-ever production, Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches, has its final previews today and tomorrow. The celebrated “gay fantasia on national themes” is being staged by a new artistic director. And a new facade is being created for the 192-seat former movie theater.

However, don’t look for Stage West to approach the new millennium with wholesale change. The theater has gone to some lengths to create a business-as-usual flow from the leadership of founding director Jerry Russell to Jim Covault, his longtime associate and handpicked artistic heir.

Covault has been on staff for 16 seasons and has been influential in shaping Stage West’s reputation as a small professional playhouse known for variety and integrity. In 1980 and 1983 productions of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Stage West created and nurtured a local cult of “Brellies. “ And its marathon stagings of The Norman Conquests in 1980 and 1994 solidified Stage West’s clout as an interpreter of the works of English farceur Alan Ayckbourn.

“What Stage West has now is a platform from which it can jump off into the millennium,” said Diane Anglim, executive director. “This actually began two years ago when they hired me and separated the artistic and administrative duties. Jerry used to be in charge of everything, and I don’t see how he did it.”

Russell orchestrated his own phasing-out of the operation he began in 1979 in a storefront in a downtown Fort Worth mall. Two years ago, he persuaded the board of directors to keep him, Covault and Anglim on full salary while his various artistic and administrative functions were sorted and parceled out.

“This transfer has been well-planned — expensive, but well-planned,” said said board President Beth McLaughlin. “Jerry was, as usual, the visionary. He saw the need for this as far back as five years ago, and we began planning then to achieve this continuity.

Well, no, not continuity, because that implies sameness. A transition.”

Russell has officially retired, but he is much in evidence at Stage West. He plays a major role in Angels in America, and by year’s end, he will have directed four shows. In the future, he will continue to act and direct there, but less frequently.

“Diane and Jerry and I were the sort-of triumvirate last year, and that’ll probably still be the case for the rest of this year,” said Covault, who was associate artistic director atStage West before Russell passed the torch.

The two men have directed each other frequently — though rarely acted together — and have crafted some indelible moments on stage.

Their 1990 on-stage pairing in the comedy/drama, A Walk in the Woods, with Russell playing a Russian diplomat and Covault his American counterpart, was one of Stage West’s best productions. Yet there are fundamental differences.

Russell, 62, is hyperactive and of medium height with a full head of gray, clenched hair. Covault, 52, is tall, bald and relentlessly tranquil. Covault has a college degree in theater. Russell never took a theater course, although he teaches one at Texas Wesleyan University. Covault has spent his adult life working in theater.

Russell has cut hair, sold cash registers and operated a delicatessen.

Both Russell and Covault are skilled actors and directors. Covault also is a set designer. And he is acknowledged as Stage West’s resident classicist. If his influence and preference points the theater along a new path, it might be toward more classical plays featuring elaborate costumes and sets. (Expense would, of course, be a factor here — as would the design limitations of a small theater.)

Anglim, 42, seems the ideal catalyst to complement the two artistic types. She is a proficient actress who also has considerable business acumen. During the 1980s, she enacted a luminous Candida for Stage West. In 1993, she moved to England for two years as international director of operations for a Euless-based service contract administration firm.

As the millennium approaches, however, Anglim will spend more time at her desk than on stage as she wrestles to get the most theatrical bang from a $471,000 annual budget.

“We’re doing well,” she said. “Most comparable theaters around the country are at 50 percent earned income. We have about 65 or 70.”

On Anglim’s wish list is raising actors’ salaries.

“And I would like to expand our educational program. We do that very well. The program is called Off the Page. We tour various schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District, doing key scenes from a play followed by discussion. In the first year of the program, we went to communities throughout Tarrant County, and I’m pushing to do that again.”

Anglim has an ally in board President McLaughlin.

“I want to see us take the lead in developing the next generation of audience,” McLaughlin said. “When young people think of art, they need to be thinking about live theater. Stage West already has a partnership with the Applied Learning Academy, which is part of the FWISD, and we’re in the process of building a relationship with the theater program at Arlington Heights High School.”

The board plans at some near future date to name the actual performing space at 3055 S. University Drive the Jerry Russell Theatre. Its namesake views this with almost diffident gratitude.

“You do what you do,” Russell said. “Getting a theater named for you isn’t why you do it.”

When the theater-naming idea was floated some months ago, Covault recalled thatRussell had often expressed the view that the University Drive location would not necessarily be the final, permanent home of Stage West.

Theoretically, it would some day outgrow the theater’s 192-seat capacity, although quality has always ruled over quantity in everyone’s hopes.

Stage West purchased the former TCU Theater in 1993 after renting a 65-seat space in the Houston Street Mall (where a bagel cafe now sits); a 170-seat former warehouse on West Vickery; and the 193-seat Caravan of Dreams Theater.

Crews converted the former movie house into a three-quarter arena with a thrust stage. Midway in the second season, the stage area was converted to its present in-the-round format. Or, as Anglim puts it, tongue-in-cheek: “In the square.”

Covault fantasizes about a newer theater with technical bells and whistles, but in more realistic moments he speculates about a second theater, a la the Dallas Theater Center’s Arts District space.

“There’s also the Studio Theatre in Washington,” he said. “They simply replicated their theater, so now it’s two spaces. If something is selling really well, they move that show to the second space and proceed with their season. Or they can also throw something risky or daring into that second space.”

Stage West has risked and dared a great deal in the past. In fact, one of Russell’s dreams has been to premiere a new work that became a hit elsewhere — preferably on Broadway.

Stage West was the first nonmusical theater in Fort Worth to establish a relationship with Actors Equity, the performers’ union that is the acknowledged benchmark of professionalism. There is no doubt that Russell’s commitment to quality, and his success, inspired Circle Theatre, Jubilee Theatre and others to aim high.

“Before Jerry started Stage West, there was Fort Worth Theatre and that was that,” Covault said. “So Jerry totally changed the landscape here.”

Russell aimed high for his own theater.

“In my mind, Stage West would be a theater that was the equal of the Alley Theatre in Houston or the Dallas Theater Center,” he said.

“Some of that was certainly connected to bricks and mortar, although more important is the artistic reputation.

“And I held onto that dream for a long time. There was a time, seven or eight years ago when we were talking about a merger with Shakespeare in the Park. We hoped we could build a really beautiful theater down there next to Trinity Park.

“Somewhere in 1991 I realized it was not going to happen during my watch. The time was not right.”

At one point, Russell and Stage West tried to turn the downtown Fort Worth Library into a performance space, thereby saving an historic architectural gem from the wrecking ball. The space is a parking lot on Throckmorton Street today.

“That’s probably the only thing I look back on with real sadness,” Russell said. “And I kind of blame myself. I think maybe I didn’t push hard enough.”

Having deferred one dream, might Jerry Russell chase another?

Conversations about his future are vague and peppered with phrases like “if I stay in this area. “ He is more interested in acting than in directing, he said.

“I have no agent at present,” he said. “I used to have one, but I never could get away when she would call me to come audition for something. As I explore new avenues, I find myself thinking about writing. That may be foolhardy.”

A Jerry Russell play premiering at Stage West? Intriguing.

Meanwhile, Russell’s participation, however limited, and his legacy of quality will serve his theater well into the next century. One example: The 1998-99 lineup of plays, to be announced in July, was chosen on Russell’s watch.

“What Stage West has always focused on is the piece,” Anglim said.

“It’s the play, and the characters in the play. My goal at this point is to fill the theater.

“We’re in a good place here. A college community. There’s a lot happening on Berry Street. Redoing the front of the building is going to say to people ‘This is Stage West.’ ”