René Moreno, North Texas’ leading and most lauded theater director, died March 28 at age 57 from complications after surgery. A Facebook post from longtime friend and colleague Laurel Hoitsma says, "Moreno had surgery last Monday [March 20] and all went well. He moved to rehab over the weekend and had heart trouble, then kidney and liver failure."
Director of close to 100 plays (maybe more, as Moreno often said he didn’t keep count) in Dallas-Fort Worth theaters, plus regional productions at Oklahoma City Repertory and elsewhere, Moreno was described by actors who worked with him as “exacting,” “demanding,” and “tough.” And they loved him for being all those things.
Born and raised in East Dallas, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and of SMU’s drama department, Moreno started his theater career as an actor. An accident in 1991 put him in a wheelchair and he said in an interview in 2012 that he spent a year in “deep grief” over the injury. A call from his fellow SMU grads at Kitchen Dog Theater offered him his first directing job and a new career path was forged. (He then returned to SMU for an MFA in directing.)
In recent years, Moreno often was booked for directing gigs a year or more in advance. He also taught acting at KD Studio.
Occasionally, Moreno took an acting role, if he thought the part suited “a Latino guy in a wheelchair,” as he described himself. In 2008, he played the title character in Shakespeare’s Richard III at Kitchen Dog, rolling up and around a set built with ramps.
“It was a great fit,” Moreno said at the time. “The chair symbolized Richard’s interior insecurities.”
Moreno staged plays at all of DFW’s major professional theaters and at most of its smaller ones, directing for WaterTower Theatre, Stage West, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Theatre Three, Dallas Theater Center, Shakespeare Dallas, WingSpan, and many others. He was versatile, taking on classical works, musicals, farces, children’s plays, and even some scripts other directors deemed impossible to stage. One of those was Tennessee Williams’ universally ill-regarded The Gnadiges Fraulein, which Moreno turned into a critical and audience hit for WingSpan at the Bath House Cultural Center in 2006.
In 2014, he directed a cast of kids and teens in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Plano’s Fun House Theatre and Film. Critics and audiences were spellbound at the clarity and comic snap the actors (ages 10 to 15) brought to the difficult piece under Moreno’s direction.
Hallmarks of Moreno’s directing style were his attention to detail in all aspects of a production, and his ability to challenge actors to be better, no matter how good they thought they were already.
Veteran Dallas actor Pam Dougherty starred in Moreno’s productions of Tracy Letts’ massive family drama August: Osage County at WaterTower and at Oklahoma City Rep in 2010. She called the director “a sculptor” who shaped every moment in a play, but in a way that left room for actors to be creative on their own.
Playing a hard-drinking older woman in Contemporary Theatre’s 2012 production of The Night of the Iguana, Dallas actor Cindee Mayfield recalled in an interview that Moreno “challenged me to expand into unknown parts of myself and then supported and encouraged me. It was truly an unforgettable experience. He never lost faith in me."
Critics often overused the adjectives “superb” and “brilliant” in their praise of Moreno’s directorial efforts, but only because there were no better superlatives. He won every local award for his work many times over. The DFW Critics Forum, which gathers annually to vote on honors for local productions, began giving Moreno an overall award for his entire season of directing assignments in multiple theaters. It was too hard to choose just one.
Moreno had been scheduled to return to WaterTower this spring to direct Karen Zacárias’ Native Gardens, but it was announced a few weeks ago that David Lozano, of Dallas’ Cara Mía Theatre Co., would take over, making his directorial debut at the Addison theater.
"We at WaterTower Theatre are deeply saddened by the passing of René,” says the company’s new artistic director, Joanie Schultz, in a statement. “He was an important artist in our WaterTower family, and directed work that had an impact on our artists and audiences alike. His presence is something that has marked us all and will remain with us always.”
As news of Moreno’s passing was shared on social media, actors offered their memories of working with him. Indie film star Matthew Tompkins recalled being lured back to the stage by Moreno for Stage West’s The Seafarer in 2009. “What a fantastic, singular, powerful experience,” Tompkins wrote on Facebook. “[René] made all of us … better actors, better people, better HUMAN BEINGS.”
“He taught me how to be a professional,” posted Kitchen Dog company member Michael Federico.
“Making him laugh (and you had to earn it) felt like unlocking a superpower,” wrote actor and drama teacher Clay Wheeler, who was in Moreno’s 2011 Shakespeare Dallas production of As You Like It.
Moreno is survived by his longtime partner Charles McMullen. The funeral will be 11 am on April 1 at Restland Funeral Home and Cemetery in Dallas, with visitation beginning at 10 am. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to your charity of choice.
A public celebration of Moreno's life and work will be held at Dallas City Performance Hall on April 29 at 1 pm.
“I love actors,” René Moreno once said in an interview for a series of profiles of Dallas’ most creative people. “I want them to be as honest as possible, as long as it's coming from a real place. I have such great faith in them. And if they have doubts, it's part of my job to make sure they learn to believe in themselves."