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Celebrating The Legacy Of Paul Baker, Founder Of Dallas Theater Center 19

“Irritating, arrogant, nuts …and a genius.” That’s how one actor described Paul Baker. He founded the Dallas Theater Center and collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright to build its home. When Booker T Washington High became an arts magnet school, Baker was its first director. His daughter, Robyn Flatt, co-founded the Dallas Children’s Theater using his principles. In State of the Arts, Flatt tells me why writers, theater directors and educators are gathering this weekend to reflect on Baker’s legacy.

Why is Paul Baker still relevant today, 10 years after his death?

Robyn Flatt.

RF He was a visionary. He was a maverick. He opened so many doors for so many people. I think it’s so important for us, as a city, to understand that here are concepts that were behind the formation of the Dallas Theater Center. Here’s concepts that were behind the launching and the continuation of Booker T Washington High School – and I think what made it a success.  Or behind the Dallas Children’s Theater. And to see the under-the-surface connections between these three very strong organizations. And I think Dallas should be taking pride in this. And I think so many people don’t even know these connections exist.

What was different about his approach to theater?

RF He really recreated the audience-actor relationship in a way America hadn’t seen before.

Up to that time, you were pretty well accustomed to proscenium theater. You were looking through a window into a world. And he wanted to break that out. And at Yale, he was required to design a theater. And so he did. And the theater he designed – so three stages around the audience, and the audience in swivel chairs, that could turn side to side to see the action.

And the action could even go through the audience, which is what just knocked the socks off the British actor Charles Laughton, when he came in and saw how my dad was using space, and bringing the audience into the action.

Paul Baker Weekend takes place Friday and Saturday. Events are free, open to public, and include highlights from a documentary in progress, a tour of Booker T. Washington High School and panel discussions. Details and tickets.

I think it might be hard for people today to think about something like a revolving stage, or actors running through the audience, as incredibly innovative.  But that was just not done at the time. 

RF Yeah, yeah. You didn’t break out into moving action all across an audience. You didn’t break Shakespeare up into multiple actors playing a character. I mean, it was mind boggling.

Your father created a whole system of exercises that are really designed to get one in touch with one’s creativity and strengths. 

RF The book is called “The Integration of Abilities.” And an Integration of Abilities class is simply a series of exercises where you discover who you are. You discover, “Oh my strength is ryhthm; maybe I might want to be a musician”; “My strength is color and line. Oh, maybe I’d like to explore visual art.:

He said, “I want you to find who you are. And explore that. And I want to give you the tools to do it.”

That’s how Preston Jones started out, was from this excercise. That’s how Robert Flynn, who’s a wonderful Texas writer, novelist.  That’s how Octavio Solis, who’s going to be with us this weekend, that’s how he got started, was this simple, simple, exercise.

When Booker T Washington High School became an arts magnet, Paul Baker was the founding director. And he would use these exercises with the students.

RF This is what he used when a student was having trouble. He would say, OK, this child is brilliant over here in dance, but they’re just having an awful time in math. OK. So  he would ask the math teacher to go observe the student in dance class. And then to talk to the student about rhythm, and what’s the rhythm of mathematics. And to bring those two things into relationship for the student. So they can see, how, for them, math might be a connection, it might be important.