Artistic director of the Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia and a well-known theater director nationally, Walter Dallas nevertheless is a creative Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
As the head of a prominent African American theater at a time when many culturally specific arts institutions are struggling just to survive, he has taken an aggressive approach to leadership.
Since taking over the theater in 1992, in fact, he has overseen both the professionalization and expansion of the 30-year-old institution. And while his strategies have often been unorthodox, they have also met with unprecedented success.
Yet those who work with him in the rehearsal room paint a picture of Dallas as the model of subtlety, a man who knows when to simply get out of the way of a text.
"Walter doesn't go way out and try to make things happen that don't happen in the play," says actress Frances Foster, who is currently working with Dallas for the fourth time, as he directs Emily Mann's "Having Our Say," opening Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum.
"Some people try to get fancy with their directing, but he sticks closely to the script and tries to make the play come to life," she continues. "I trust his judgment completely."
So do others. Dallas was, after all, the man whom Lloyd Richards called upon to serve as his replacement when he was unable to stage the premiere of August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago last year. "One night at midnight I got a call saying, 'Can you be in rehearsals in a week?' " Dallas recalls.
Similarly, that's how Dallas, who turns 50 today, came to his current assignment. Mann, who was originally planning to restage the work she had directed on Broadway, asked Dallas to fill in for her.
"My life has just been like that all the time," the outgoing Dallas says during a post-rehearsal conversation at the Taper. "It's always been that kind of serendipity."
Dallas, who has also written several plays, has staged a wide range of scripts at such prestigious theaters as the American Place in New York, Yale Repertory and the O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn. This is his first time at the helm of one of Mann's plays, although he has worked at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., where Mann is artistic director.
The play, adapted by Mann from the book "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth, stars Foster and Lynne Thigpen as sisters who share the stories of their 100-year-plus lives with the audience.
As with the realistic dramas of August Wilson, believability is an important consideration in the staging.
"We have to create a world in which these two actresses convince us that these two sisters have really lived and known each other for 100 years," Dallas says. "Most of us have no sense of what that's about. They prepare a meal, and you have to sense that they've been doing this for 100 years."
The appeal is an elemental one, dependent on the rapport of the actresses with the audience.
"It's like visiting your favorite aunt," Dallas says. "Getting to know these people as people is what pulls you in and keeps you there."
That doesn't mean, however, that Dallas opts for a purely hands-off approach.
"Walter is very inventive," Foster says. "He has tremendous imagination, and he's quite challenging. But whatever he comes up with always has to do with helping tell the story of the play."
Says Thigpen, who is working with Dallas for the first time on this show: "Bessie has big emotional swings, like many older people do, and he's helped me find those. He does give you room to try things. He's not coming in and trying to put a stamp on something. In this case that's very valid because [the script] is the actual words of people, so that's where you have to get it from."
If Dallas seems at ease with the world of the Delany women, it may be in part because he shares certain pivotal cultural experiences with the characters. Although there is an obvious generation gap, for instance, both he and they were profoundly affected by black arts movements in their respective times.
Dallas, who is single, grew up in Atlanta and majored in English at Morehouse College there. He trained as a director at the Yale School of Drama from 1968 through 1971, during the often-turbulent years when the school was headed by Robert Brustein, now the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
"My goal was to come back to Atlanta and create a theater that had a training program," Dallas says. But upon graduating in 1971, he found himself bitten by wanderlust instead.
"I threw everything in a U-Haul and went AWOL to California," Dallas says. "I had a friend at Stanford who said, 'You can stay with me.' I got a job at UC Berkeley the next day and was there for about five years."