Paul Baker, Mentor

At Trinity University in the 1970s, he guided a generation of eager, young artists.

published Monday, October 26, 2009

I was a student of Paul Baker’s at Trinity University in the 1970s. For once, I was in the right place at the right time.

The theater department at Trinity was a magnet then for budding actors, designers, directors and playwrights from all over, drawn to the school by Paul Baker’s reputation as the innovative artistic director at Dallas Theater Center.

I knew I wanted to study with him when I was in high school in Dallas; it might even have been earlier, after a class trip to see his famous production of Hamlet ESP. I wrote a short review of the show for the school paper (my first published piece of criticism) and then returned to see it a second time. It was an astonishing piece for a young theatergoer to take in, performed on a raked stage with an ethnically diverse mix of actors and, as I recall, a hand puppet as Polonius. It looked and sounded like no show I’d ever seen. It was bold, loud, sexy and violent. And it was still Shakespeare.

When it came time to apply to schools, I applied only to Trinity. Unlike other college drama departments then, including Southern Methodist University’s, there was an openness in Trinity’s theater school that allowed everyone, including freshmen, to participate in the busy slate of productions from the first semester on.

Back then, Trinity’s brand new Ruth Taylor Theater (which has since been razed) put on something like 10 productions a year on a sold-out subscription series. There was also the smaller Attic Theater upstairs, with another busy calendar of shows. And there was the Café Theater, plus a children’s series, a summer season and a spring theater festival—in those days we called it a "happening"—that kept all the stages buzzing with dramas, comedies, musicals and classics nearly year-round. Several times each year, the Dallas Theater Center would send down complete productions starring their company members, which is how I first fell in love with Randy Tallman and Steven Mackenroth’s rock musical of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In the Baker philosophy of "integration of abilities," Trinity theater students learned a vocabulary of how to make and view art. Line, texture, rhythm, sound, space, silhouette—these became our vocabulary words and reference points (I still use them today). In creating a character, we’d be ask to find a "nature object" that suggested the character. We’d have to create collages, do paintings, drum out rhythms and perform "movement studies" before we ever got up to do scene work. It wasn’t unusual to see bits of road kill repurposed for these things, or to watch terrified students take the stage alone to tentatively fling their arms and legs around in movement routines.

So intent were we all on impressing Mr. Baker (that’s how we addressed him then) and the other faculty, that the theater would be full of kids at all hours, taking our turns working in the performance spaces. It was invigorating, it was exhausting. And we loved it.

Every Friday afternoon was something called "Drama X," a department-wide get-together in the big theater for all drama majors and faculty. Mr. Baker would be there, telling us stories about what was happening at DTC (he commuted between Dallas and San Antonio every few days) and answering our questions about all things esoteric. He could be very funny in those meetings, though lots of students were never sure when he was kidding. He especially liked to skewer other college drama programs, referring to the renowned Goodman School of Drama in Chicago as the "Bergdorf-Goodman School."

As a student worker in the department office, I also had much-prized access to Mr. Baker outside of class. Never good at remembering names, he called me either "Alice" or "girl" for four years. I never corrected him. But he also took lots of time answering my questions and looking at my artwork (I did a lot of painting and sculpting in those days), which he always praised lavishly.

At Trinity, you couldn’t just be an actor or designer or director. You had to integrate those abilities. In one show, you’d be onstage; in the next, you were hanging lights from the catwalk, hammering scenery or sewing seams. We learned to stage manage, cast, gather props and design makeup and hair. Everything. Even now, when I’m reviewing a show, I can spot a crooked hem or a badly focused light because I’ve been there and done that and know when it’s not done right.

My classmates went on to Broadway, the London stage, films, TV series and into regional theaters coast to coast. But many became teachers, too, passing along the philosophy that fit us and our abilities so well.

I learned to love theater because of Paul Baker, but maybe the best lesson I ever got from him was about being fearless. Going into college at 18, I was so shy I couldn’t even call directory assistance without breaking into a cold sweat. My first semester at Trinity, I never asked a question in class and rarely spoke to anyone but my roommates.

But fear wasn’t allowed in Mr. Baker’s classrooms. You had to get up and do it, no excuses. I clapped out those rhythms and performed those movement studies even when I‘d feel so nervous I’d toss my breakfast. Gradually, I gained confidence in my own abilities, integrated and otherwise.

He could be stern and scary in his critiques, but Mr. Baker could also sense when someone was on the brink of a creative breakthrough and just needed a nudge in the right direction. After a particularly disastrous Roman comedy solo I had to perform in an acting class, he gently said: "It’s tough to be funny on a Monday morning. You can do better." I kept working on it and when I did it again in the next class, he laughed. And what a great, big, wonderful laugh he had. Thanks For Reading

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Paul Baker, Mentor
At Trinity University in the 1970s, he guided a generation of eager, young artists.
by Elaine Liner

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