Live theater is such an ephemeral thing, it’s hard to assess the real merit of performances and productions from even a few years ago — if you never saw them, if they were never recorded. Although I met him twice, I never saw a show directed by Paul Baker, the founder of the Dallas Theater Center who died Sunday — although photos from such productions as the DTC debut, Of Time and the River, make me wish I had.
But I suspect that Baker — like many teachers and organization founders — may prove to be more influential through the people he inspired and taught than what he actually put onstage. After all, he inspired Dallasites to establish the Dallas Theater Center, he inspired (and quarrelled with) Frank Lloyd Wright over their ideas about democratic and innovative theater, he helped establish the Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet. He created the theater program at Trinity University in San Antonio and inspired such playwrights as Preston Jones (A Texas Trilogy), Mark Medoff (Children of a Lesser God) and Dallas Children’s Theatre playwright-in-residence Linda Daugherty (Theatre for Children: 15 Classic Plays).
But in all the obits and remembrances that have appeared about Baker the past two days, none has mentioned the artist who must rank as his single most influential student —
Robert Wilson — the internationally renowned avant-garde artist, creator of the “theater of images,” director of Einstein on the Beach, the CIVIL warS, Hamletmachine, Great Day in the Morning, the Knee Plays, The Black Rider and dozens of major opera productions, mostly in Europe.
Perhaps that oversight occurred because Wilson’s work has never been staged here (except for the 1977 tour of I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating, which came to Fort Worth). Perhaps that’s because Baker taught Wilson long before Baker came to Dallas.
Wilson grew up as a shy, awkward, stammering kid in Waco, who put on plays in his garage with his grandmother and a young next-door neighbor. He has cited two early encounters that helped change his life. The first was dance instructor Byrd Hoffman, who helped him at 17 to overcome his stammer — Wilson later named his experimental performance company the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds after her — and the second was Baker.
Both Hoffman and Baker took what might be called a “holistic” approach to education, physical movement and theater. Hoffman, for instance, did not directly address Wilson’s speech impediment. She got him comfortable in his own body — essentially, she got him to relax through dance exercises.
Wilson met Baker at the Baylor Children’s Theater, which Baker ran. Wilson later said (quoted in Paul Baker and the Integration of Abilities), “He opened a door for me. My interest was in visual arts and painting. I hadn’t thouight to work in theater. He encouraged me to use those talents in theater. Most important, he taught me to trust myself, in my body as an instrument.”
Wilson has adapted Hoffman and Baker’s thinking in his own training and rehearsal workshops and in his collaborations with developmentally impaired artists, such as the autistic poet Christopher Knowles (whose texts are used in Einstein on the Beach).
Indirectly through Wilson, then, Baker’s thinking has influenced Philip Glass, David Byrne and Talking Heads (their concert film, Stop Making Sense, owed a lot to Wilson — before Byrne’s collaboration with him in the CIVIL warS), Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk and countless others in what might be termed “the international avant-garde.”
When I spoke to Wilson in Houston in 1991 before the Alley Theatre’s co-production of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, he spoke fondly of Baker — and of his own sorrow that the last shot at staging his monumental work, the CIVIL warS (which had failed to get fully funded for the LA Olympics) had been in Texas. He’d almost brought his magnum opus to his home state, but the private-public funding fell through once again. It was his bitterness over the CIVIL warS that drove Wilson into European opera houses. There simply wasn’t the funding support system in America, he said, that could allow him to work on his projects the way he could there.
It was a sadly ironic moment, then, when Charles Santos announced Saturday night that TITAS is working on bringing Einstein on the Beach — Wilson’s and Glass’ breakthrough opera from 1976 — to Dallas, at last, in a year or two.
He announced this only hours before Baker died of pneumonia.