In June, Deep Dish Theater Company quietly announced its closure after a fifteen-year run in Chapel Hill's University Place (née University Mall)—a major loss for the area's theater scene. Yet the company's demise received virtually no public notice. That typified the modesty and reserve of founding artistic director Paul Frellick, who "was always happy to have my work disappear in the course of rehearsals," as he puts it. There was no zero-hour plea for donations, no closing party. The curtain simply dropped.
Starting in 2001, Deep Dish produced fifty-eight plays (plus a dozen workshops and coproductions), from classics to world premieres—including, full disclosure, one of mine. Their work always exuded intelligence, warmth, and artistic rigor, often bringing challenging fare to the unusual venue of a mall. I invited Frellick for an exit interview—truly an exit, as he and his family will move at year's end to Southern California, where his wife, Grace Baranek, has a new job at USC.
INDY: I'll start at the end: Why did you close the theater for good?
PAUL FRELLICK: When the movie theater [Silverspot Cinema] came in [to University Place], we were right next to the area they were reconfiguring. Ours was now a space that they were going to need to charge top-dollar rental on—they'd always just taken a percentage of our box office. We'd been very fortunate. But the issue ultimately was that we'd grown incrementally for a long time, and the next step had to be a leap in some way.
Why not just stay small?
Because it wasn't a sustainable model. We needed to have a space big enough to be able to take advantage of the shows that took off. If a show did well, we couldn't extend because we were going right up to the time when we needed to start building the next set. Moving anywhere was going to cost a good deal of money, so to move and grow smaller or even be the same size would have killed us anyway.
Are you upset?
[Long pause] It helped a little bit that it was fifteen years. And I couldn't point to a compromised production. But yeah. Those fifteen years were marked by a belief that the next step was just around the corner. It was always sort of tantalizingly close. It could be next season that we were going to move to that bigger space, that I was going to leave my day job [in UNC's Public Health Leadership Program]. And it is frustrating, because it comes to be taken for granted that people are going to put on plays whether you pay them or not, whether people come or not. In the theater, you're always trying to make it look easy. If you call attention to how hard it is, that makes it less fun.
When you started the company, did you have a sense of how long you were going to do it?
I certainly didn't have an end date in mind. I always hoped that it was something I would start out doing in my spare time and would eventually occupy all my time, that audiences would continue to grow and that programming would continue to grow. But I was never approaching it scientifically. So much of it is about hunches. I didn't know what shape it was going to take. When we came down here [from Chicago in 1996, when Baranek took a job at UNC], it seemed like really fertile ground here with an amazing potential audience. And it seemed pretty underserved.
How did the mall thing come about? It's a weird place for a theater.
There were no un-weird places. [Laughs] University Mall was one of those places where Grace and I would see these empty shop spaces and think we could do a play in there, although we didn't know how it would work. There was new management that was really interested in enhancing the nightlife there. So I went in for this meeting that I thought was just going to be me imagining what it would look like, and that ended with us walking through the mall and denoting a space where we could do it.
I was always interested in the theater as part of daily life—that it wasn't a special-event kind of thing. And going to the mall was the perfect way to express that: we could be next to Radio Shack and it was the equivalent of picking up batteries. And that worked really well, too. People weren't intimidated by the experience because we were in a safe place—although we never did glitz well; we never did galas well. People wouldn't put on their finery to go to the mall.
I suppose that hurt fundraising efforts?
It was the Bernie Sanders model—so many people giving a little bit of money. But we never had a few people giving a lot of money that would have allowed us to take the bigger leaps.
Your inaugural production was [Samuel Beckett's] Endgame, one of the bleakest plays of the twentieth century.
I remember one of our neighbors in the mall, who ran the children's store, saying, "Endgame? That's not really mall entertainment." And I said, "No, exactly." [Laughs] I always thought it was really funny, too. And I've always liked the idea of doing the other play by the playwright—the one that people don't know as well. I don't like rehashing or confirming people's preconceived notions. I'm one of those people who can never read a book twice, because I feel like I'm sacrificing time I could be devoting to something I haven't read.
Your second production was the fairly obscure Cat's Paw, a play about terrorism.
We opened right before the towers came down, the first weekend of September, 2001. How do you go back into the theater with a play about terrorists? It meant a lot to me that people were willing to go along with me on that one, and there were people who said to me that they found a platform, a place where they could work through thoughts and feelings, that they hadn't found anywhere else. It was a way to be at a fictional remove from things that were right in your lap. It reaffirmed for me what the theater can do, and it was the play that really established us.
You produced a wide variety of plays over the years. Do you think there was a Deep Dish "aesthetic"?
We did have a mission statement, but it always meant more to me to say that it was human-centered work. Some of that was a bias toward naturalism, but mostly it was an attempt to look at ideas or issues through the human lens: regular people who are trying to find their way through, people the audience could recognize, going through dilemmas they could understand.
We did very fanciful plays, very ridiculous plays, and very heartfelt dramas—some of them preachier than others—but with all of those, I felt like you understood the vulnerabilities. I'm thinking about how [New York stage actress] Cherry Jones described great theater: "Human beings comforting one another with their shortcomings." What the theater does best is show people at their worst.
Deep Dish was clearly your brainchild, but it never seemed despotic, or existing to further your style.
It's sometimes been a source of frustration for me, because it's hard for me to characterize my work as "revolutionary."
Did you want it to be?
No, that was the thing. It's always much more interesting to me to be drawn into a play rather than held up against a wall. That sort of welcoming aspect. Because of the very different kinds of material we were working on from show to show, we never assumed that it would fly. So we did our work from the moment people walked in the door, welcoming people to the experience.
What surprised you as you went down the road?
We had a loyal audience from the get-go. People at Endgame said, "We're so glad you're here." And in retirement communities, word traveled faster than anywhere else I know. That was always a core audience, which was great because it was a demanding audience intellectually. People complain about theater audiences aging, but it's only a problem where people only want to see a certain kind of play. That was never the case here. Via Dolorosa is a prime example. A one-man show about the Middle East? That's not a cash cow, but we did just fine with that.
We kept trying things that kept paying off. It was surprising to me how successfully we were able to negotiate a nonprofit entity in a commercial space for the first ten years or so; then it felt like it got tougher to sell tickets.
Why do you think that was?
Well, there was less advance press, less press in general, so it dwindled down to just reviews. But people don't really care what somebody thinks about the play. They want to know what it's about and what kind of experience it'll be. And I think there's been a fundamental shift: people don't connect with producers the same way; they connect with the material.
It's like the way people buy single songs now instead of albums. You're not asked to make that sort of commitment now. Everybody just assumes that life is too short. There's also no way to measure how many people are just watching things on their phones. [Laughs]
Plans for California?
It's hard for me to imagine not directing, but I certainly want to do a lot more reading, and a lot more writing as well.
For the stage?
Maybe. I can tell you that I'm not going to be in any kind of a hurry to start a theater company. But I still have an abiding faith in what the theater can do. I think a play can stay with you in a way that almost nothing else can.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Curtain Call"