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Muse of Regional Theater

WHEN Margo Jones taught theater at the University of Texas, her students received either an A or an F. ``When the dean tried to describe different levels of grading,'' Helen Sheehy notes in her recent biography,``Margo interrupted, `Oh no, oh no, darling, you either belong in the theatre or you don't.''' The theater was all or nothing with Margo Jones. It was her family, her religion, her job, her crusade.

Her idealism about theater never left her. When asked by the newspaper of Texas Woman's University in Denton, from which she graduated in 1933, how to ``break into the theatre,'' she wrote that ``breaking in'' was the wrong approach. ``What you should do,'' she advised, ``is sow some seeds ... and let them grow.''

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Fifty years ago every knowledgeable theater person agreed that the professional theater, then centered exclusively in New York, needed to be decentralized. The trouble was nobody wanted to do it. Who wanted to find out if nonprofit, resident theaters presenting classics and new plays, tailored to local interests, could succeed in the sticks?

Margo Jones was willing to try.

Once she proved that such a theater could succeed in Dallas, there was plenty of interest in following her lead - especially as the New York theater contracted under the onslaught of television and movies, offering fewer and fewer jobs. The regional theaters that now give vitality to the culture of American cities from New Haven, Conn., to Los Angeles, from Seattle and Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., have grown from the seeds that Margo Jones sowed.

When she arrived in Dallas in early 1945 at the age of 32, she possessed the right credentials for establishing a professional theater. She had grown up, been schooled, and taught in Texas. Having successfully directed an amateur theater for the Houston Recreation Department, she knew how to organize community support, how to promote herself and her ideas, how to cultivate and keep in touch with contacts.

Perhaps most important of all, she knew how to nurture ideas and inspire those she directed. Of course, there were problems: mobilizing key backers, finding space, pioneering in-the-round staging when no proscenium arch theater could be found or built, and welding disparate talents into a team.

But by the time she died 10 years later, her Dallas Civic Theatre was operating virtually year-round without subsidies. Jones staged most of the plays herself (29 in one three-year stretch). She had presented world premieres by Tennessee Williams (``Summer and Smoke''), William Inge (``Farther Off from Heaven'' and a precursor of ``The Dark at the Top of the Stairs''), Sean O'Casey, Dorothy Parker, and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (``Inherit the Wind''). She had also given important encouragement to Zelda Fichhandler and Nina Vance, who formed the Arena Stage in Washington and the Alley Theatre in Houston, respectively.

Sheehy suggests that while Jones was a prolific director, she was not a great one. She seems to have been too busy to help - or force - playwrights to improve their work during rehearsals; often she made no changes in their texts.

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The Dallas plays she took to male-dominated New York theater failed - except ``Inherit the Wind,'' in which she had no production capacity. New York actors resisted her nurturing.

Reviewing this life, one is struck by the way Jones's nurturing, cherishing - some might say ``female'' - qualities accounted for her accomplishments. ``Male'' qualities precipitated her problems.

Driven, ambitious, a workaholic, she identified herself totally with her work. While she could nurture a theater family, she had no close personal friends. When she needed to release confused emotions, she was unable to do so. Her most significant personal relationship was with the business manager of her theater. When this relationship ended, Jones found herself at an emotional dead end. She relied on amphetamines to keep her going and liquor - she had always been a hard-drinking, ``good-old-Texas-gal'' - to help her relax. Her death was the consequence of a drunken bout of loneliness.

Today, if she could look back, Margo Jones would be pleased to see the health of the national theater she fostered. She once wrote that she liked ``to think that if I decided to take a cross-country trip alone in 1960, I could stop in every city with a population of 75,000 and see a good play well done.''

If that hope is not yet entirely a reality, the decentralization of the American theater is. Margo Jones would be happy that the American theater's most exciting and venturesome work is now being done in the sort of theater she established in Dallas.

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