Walter Dallas Leaves Behind a Legendary Legacy 

June 24, 2020

Walter Dallas—the first director of UArts’ Theater program and a legendary figure in Philadelphia’s theater history—passed away on May 3. The Atlanta-born actor, director and educator was renowned for his craft, having worked with prominent actors such as Viola Davis, who he directed in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, among others. Dallas’s legacy has influenced not only theater in Philadelphia but nationally. 

Although Dallas had been drawn to the theater since childhood, he graduated from Morehouse College in 1968 with a degree in music and theology and went on to study at Harvard Divinity School. Despite finding himself drawn to religious study, Dallas eventually chose to fulfill his passion for theater arts and earned his MFA from the Yale School of Drama in 1971. Later, he studied traditional African dance and theater at the University of Ghana at Legon. 

In 1983, when Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (PCPA) was merging with Philadelphia College of Art (PCA), Dallas founded the School of Theater and served as its first director. (The school later became the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts.) While serving as director of the Theater program, Dallas also directed at Freedom Theatre in North Philadelphia and at the Philadelphia Drama Guild at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directed the musical Lazarus, Unstoned. In 2002, Dallas received an honorary doctorate from UArts recognizing his contributions to the nation’s theater culture. 

 Dallas is pictured here at a rehearsal for James Baldwin's "The Welcome Table" at UArts in 1990.
Dallas at a rehearsal for James Baldwin's "The Welcome Table"

Dallas was also a trailblazer for the Black theater community. Barbara Silzle of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund said in an interview with WHYY that Dallas “gave access” to talented Black artists who had “less platforms and access” in Philadelphia at the time. After Dallas left UArts in 1992, he went on to become the artistic director of Freedom Theatre. It was there that he staged Black Nativity, a play that became, as Johnny Hobbes Jr. said in The Philadelphia Tribune, a tradition like “seeing The Nutcracker.” 

In 2008, Dallas left Philadelphia for the University of Maryland, where he was a senior artist-in-residence. Dallas became co-director of the MFA in Performance program at the university, where he stayed until 2013. In his career, Dallas was the recipient of countless awards, including an Emmy Award, an Audience Development Committee Inc. National Achievement Award for Excellence in Black Theatre and two Creative Genius Awards from the Atlanta Circle of Drama Critics. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his direction of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and an NAACP Theatre Award nomination for Best Director for Having Our Say at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. 
Dallas touched the lives of many at UArts and throughout the world. His legacy lives on in the students, faculty and staff of the Brind School and in the countless theater professionals he inspired over his storied career. David Howey, dean of the Brind School of Theater Arts said, "Walter Dallas was an inspirational figure to the first generation of UArts theater students and faculty. His passion for theater, and the inclusion of all in its mysteries, played a major part in the creation and growth of a thriving and diverse theater scene in Philadelphia. In these difficult times, we look back to his example for guidance and celebrate his legacy."

Information provided by Director for Library Services Sara MacDonald.