How Katherine Owens Transformed Dallas Theater

Dallas doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for its rich theatrical history. Today the city is flush with young actors, directors, and playwrights mounting exciting new projects and productions. It’s played host to numerous world premieres and newly commissioned works. Perhaps most remarkable of all, innovative women have long been central to these successes, ever since Margo Jones essentially invented the regional theater model here in the 1940s.

Arriving in Dallas several decades later, Katherine Owens likewise upended preconceptions about what art could be produced in the city and embraced by its audiences. Her love of adventurous storytelling contributed mightily to the depth of the work being produced in the region and inspired others to follow suit. Her death last Sunday, following a battle with lymphoma, leaves a void at the heart of the local theater scene. She was 61.

Best known as the co-founder of Dallas’s Undermain Theatre, Owens was born in 1957 in Salt Lake City but raised in Odessa. Her parents encouraged her creativity from an early age. Her theatrical work began at Odessa’s Globe Theatre and continued at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in theater in 1981. Moving to Dallas not long after graduation, Owens eventually found her way to a basement space in Deep Ellum, directly under 3200 Main Street. There she and her co-founder, Raphael Parry, gave birth in 1984 to a legacy of avant-garde theater that will likely never be replicated—Undermain.

Together, along with Bruce DuBose (later Owens’ husband), they were fierce proponents of producing off-the-wall plays out of their underground theater. They modeled their ambitions on the likes of Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre, though they had no experience running a company or raising funds. They learned it all as they went along.

At first, they worried Dallas was too conservative for their vision. So for years they kept a low profile, quietly experimenting in their Deep Ellum basement. But Undermain soon became the worst-kept secret in town, attracting theatergoers who craved a radically different experience. Their audiences knew what they were in for before heading downstairs, and Owens was often there to greet them in the lobby. The loyal patronage she personally cultivated has done much to sustain the company throughout the thirty-plus years of its existence.

In the early days, Undermain’s team would have to beg the Dallas City Council not to slash the arts budget that helped keep them afloat, Owens recalled when we spoke in 2016. They fought for the support they needed to produce unprecedented theatrical experiences. They also wouldn’t waver from their values. In 1990, Undermain notably refused to comply with a grant requirement by the National Endowment for the Arts that it not produce work that could be deemed obscene or blasphemous—which, at the time, included works featuring gay characters. “It’s not like anyone took us to jail,” Owens said, when I asked her about it years later. Still, it was risky for a small, underfunded company to take that stance in the face of suppression. In truth, of course, it’s just such defiance that made Undermain into a force.

A prolific director, Owens helmed more than one hundred productions during her long career. While Undermain relishes the avant-garde, the company has proven equally adept at celebrating classics. Owens reimagined plays by Chekhov, Brecht, Strindberg, O’Neill, and as recently as their 2018 season, their first Ibsen (a rarely produced gem called The Lady From the Sea). Crucially, she also introduced North Texas to powerhouse playwrights including Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee, Jackie Sibblies Drury, and Meg Miroshnik.

She worked closely with several avant-garde writers, including David Rabe and Len Jenkin, the latter of whom would go on to become a close collaborator of hers. Her work resonated both locally and outside Texas. In the late ‘90s, she and DuBose began producing plays off-off-Broadway in New York City. Their time there culminated in a premiere of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s album Greendale as a rock opera, adapted for the stage by DuBose and directed by Owens. In 1996, the Undermain company traveled to the Republic of Macedonia—during the siege of Sarajevo in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina—to perform Goran Stefanovski’s gripping play, Sarajevo, to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Owens later returned to the Balkans in 2001, where she presented a performance of Judges 19 (by Ruth Margraff) at the Belgrade International Theatre Festival in Serbia.

Owens received scores of local honors, including multiple DFW Theater Critics Forum awards for directing and ensemble performance. Ask any actor, designer, choreographer, or director in town lucky enough to work with her, and they’ll regale you with stories of her belief in their skills and her nurturing spirit. That might be her longest lasting legacy: the collaboration she fostered in the North Texas theater landscape.

Undermain still lies beneath the Deep Ellum street where it started—a place now hardly recognizable from the little basement where Owens and Parry (who left Undermain about a decade into its run) started producing scrappy theater 35 years ago. The company is rightly regarded as one of Texas’s finest.

“The same people have run it throughout,” Jenkin once said of Undermain. “I don’t think that situation duplicates in any theater in the United States. To me, that means they’re treating people right. All the productions they’ve done for me, I feel all of them have been outstanding. And a lot of those plays are plays that many other theaters wouldn’t touch.”

Undermain’s 2019-2020 season will toast to Owens’s life with an exhibition featuring little-seen aspect of her creative output: Her watercolor paintings, photographs, and drawings, displayed in the theater’s lobby. It’s a fitting celebration of a multi-faceted artist who believed theater was a vital component of any city’s creative ecosystem.

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